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DVD Review: Landscape In The Mist

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There is a superlative scene in Theo Angelopoulos’s 1988 film Landscape In The Mist (Τοπίο στην ομίχλη or Topio Stin Omichli) that is amongst the best filmic depictions of sexual abuse ever shown, and should be shown as a primer to Hollywood directors on how to be subtle and poetic, especially when dealing with such terminally PC topics.

In it, the young ten- or twelve-year-old heroine of the film, Voula (Tania Palaiologou), who is on the run, in search of her nonexistent father, has hitched a ride with a nameless truck driver (Vassilis Kolovos). Her never seen onscreen mother has told the children their father resides in Germany, even though she has no idea who their father/s is/are. Voula is on the run with her five- or six-year-old brother Alexandre (Michalis Zeke).

After the driver tries to dump the kids off at a truck stop diner, but they follow him, he pulls over on the side of a road, as the boy sleeps. He tells her to get out of the truck, and then grabs her into the body of the truck, which is covered with a sheet, or tarp. Manifestly, he wants to sexually abuse her in some way. The camera never pans away from the back of the truck. We hear nothing, and after a minute or two, the young boy pops out of the truck cab and goes in search of his sister, calling her name. He runs out of frame, and a minute or two later the trucker gets out of the back of the truck.

Now, the camera zooms in, slowly, to the truck, so that nothing but its back exists in the frame. Then, we see Voula slowly emerge from under the tarp. Her legs, then body. She looks shell-shocked, and her hands are bloodied. Whether this is from her hymen being broken, and feeling herself, or from an injury given to her by the trucker, or scratching him, we are not sure. The blood is not substantial, although likely too much for a broken hymen. Whether she was raped or merely fondled, we watch her face as she smears the blood on the side of the truck. This says far more than any graphic shot of the violence could, especially if quick cut in an MTV style. It also allows us to zoom in and feel her numbness and wonder at the blood.

Yet, this is merely one of many bravura shots in this great, great film, which opens with a shot at a train station, then hits the credits. Angelopoulos is a master of the picaresque, stringing together a brilliantly unobtrusive yet powerful narrative through a series of realistic, yet utterly poetic, moments.

He also trusts his audience to watch and get the little moments of insight he slips in and never condescends to them. He leaves much in the film unexplained. But, we can fill in the blanks, and even if my answer is a bit different from yours, the overall arc coheres.

This tack is brilliantly illustrated in yet another scene, where the kids encounter a twentysomething motorcyclist who drives the family bus for a troupe of entertainers, The Traveling Players (a group that is a direct nod to Fellini’s La Strada and Variety Lights, and was the titular subject of his 1975 film of that name). The way Angelopoulos films the group of old, would-be vaudevillians as they rehearse on a beach for a performance is a direct nod to Fellini in his .

Yet another wonderful scene occurs when the youth, named Orestes (Stratos Tzortzoglou), finds a bit of film in a garbage can, and holds it up under a streetlamp, and against a white billboard, at night, and asks the kids if they see what is on it. The camera zooms in, but we see nothing but a gray mist. Orestes claims there is a tree in the mist, but the kids cannot see it. Then, Orestes admits he was putting them on. Not only does this scene illustrate how adult these children are, as they will not automatically say yes to an adult figure, to gain acceptance, but it also foreshadows the film’s end.

Another giveaway that these are not your average children comes early on, as the two children sleep in bed, and one of them asks for a story to be told, and the other replies with the making of the world, from Genesis: "In the beginning was the darkness. And then there was light." No Smurfs nor Disney cartoons, but deep mythos.

Then, they go to the train station every day, to see the arriving trains from Germany, in case their father is coming home. They have done so for a long time, for a local vendor recognizes them. They also compose letters in their minds to their father, whom, after they run away, and arrive at the workplace of their uncle (Dimitris Kaberidis), we find out is an invention told by their mother to hide their illegitimacy. The kids are then taken into custody, but simply walk out of the station when a snowfall hits the town, and everyone is so rapt that they gawk motionless at the white. It is a typically Fellinian moment, and this is no surprise since the film’s screenplay was written by Angelopoulos, Thanassis Valtinos, and longtime Fellini screenwriter Tonino Guerra.

In fact, the scene with the snow is merely one of several which echo Fellini, another being an homage to La Dolce Vita, where Orestes is sitting on a pier, and watches a giant statue hand rise from the water, only to be carried away by a helicopter. That the hand seems to be made of stone, yet floats up out of the water is unexplained, and we do not see the helicopter wrap its ropes around it, yet it is a mesmeric moment in the film, for we know something wonderfully magical is going on.

In the Fellini film, a helicopter is carrying a statue of Jesus Christ as that film opens. Yet, in the Fellini film, there is manifest symbolism afoot, as the statue is used as a bargaining chip for the main character, played by Marcello Mastroianni, to try to score points with women, thus subverting the holy essence of the figure. In Angelopoulos’s film, the symbolism of the hand is less obvious, and several interpretations can be made, including it just being an unexplained interlude to give the audience a chance to breathe with the characters.

Also, the scene goes on far longer than the cut-happy sort of editing of Hollywood schlockmeistery would allow, with Orestes, then the kids, watching the hand shrink in size as it disappears toward the horizon, in yet another long and satisfying take. Thus, the scene transcends mere homage to the Fellini film, and crystallizes as an enigmatic and powerful statement in its own right, and a great moment in this magnificent film.

But, the earlier scene with the snow, and the escape leads into another outstanding moment, where the two children see something being dragged behind a car in the snow. The rope snaps and the car goes on. What they see is not a plow nor some mechanical vehicle in tow, but a dying horse that cannot get to its feet. Alexandre starts crying as Voula explains to him what is happening. Yet, as the snow falls, and the horse dies, and Alexandre cries, in the background we see a bunch of revelers rejoicing in a marriage party that spills out of a restaurant and into the streets, oblivious to the dying animal and pained children.

Is there human contact? No. The revelers carry on, without stopping for a moment, and looking at what is so near their lives. The horse soon dies, as Alexandre keeps crying till the scene fades to black. In a dumbed down Hollywood film the wedding party would have come over to comfort the children and attend to the horse. But, not in this poetic realism, which depicts not the overdone inhumanity of humans, but the even more real and far more recurrent obliviousness and inurement to any and all suffering not related to the self, especially when preoccupied with hedonistic pleasures. Again, a perfect melding of the realistic ways people act (how many times do we step over the itinerant, or ignore a wounded animal?) with the sublimely and subliminally poetic. In fact, Angelopoulos probably combines the two more effectively in this film than any other filmmaker I can recall.

Soon after that scene is when they come upon Orestes, then split up from him, which leads into the abuse scene. But, before that, there is a great scene where Voula sleeps on Orestes’ bus, and Alexandre goes off to a local café to do some menial work, to get food for him and his sister. While there, a vagabond with a violin comes in, plays a tune, then is chased off by the owner. Alexandre claps at the impromptu recital, until the owner glares at him, and he goes back to work. It’s a terrific scene, again a Fellinian moment, yet somehow even deeper, because it is not too over the top, like some of the best Fellini Absurdism. When the pair meet up again with Orestes, in perhaps the film’s only flawed moment (too contrived) Orestes makes a deal with them, that he will help them reach the border town of Thessaloniki by train before he joins the Greek Army.

He decides to sell his motorcycle, after leaving his family troupe, and taking the kids with him. But, after he conducts business at a nightclub, Voula and Alexandre take off. Orestes follows them, with her schoolbag in tow. Voula is jealous that she is not loved by Orestes, as much as she love shim. It is dark, on a deserted highway, and the scene then climaxes as he holds the sobbing girl, who earlier refused to touch him when he wanted to teach her to dance (still affected by her sexual violation), and tells her it is always like this the first time (meaning her falling in love with him). The camera pans around them, and then the children take off, and we linger on Orestes watching them disappear from his life.

There is one final great scene before the ending of the film. The kids are looking for money to get the final train out of Greece, to cross the border to Germany (unaware that the two countries are not bordering, and that they will need passports, as well), when Voula up and asks a soldier for 385 drachmas. The man knows not what to do. He thinks she is a child prostitute, and ponders whether or not to accept his idea of her proposition. He wanders in and out of frame several times, over a few minutes, then walks toward the train tracks. Voula follows, and it seems like he is ready to accept her proposal — possibly for sex or fellatio. Then, he abruptly leaves her money and walks away. He has decency and compassion, unlike the truck driver.

The pair board a train, then decamp, when they overhear the need for passports. They try to sneak across the border to Germany (claimed to be at a river). They get into a boat, and take off. Just as they disappear out of view, shots ring out from the border guard tower. The next we see it is morning, misty, and the kids land at what seems to be the other side of the shore. There, Alexandre sees a tree in the distance, says, ‘In the beginning there was the dark, and the light was divided from the darkness,’ and the two run toward it, hug it, and from a distance seem to blend within its trunk. They have obviously transcended. Their trek to the North, in Germany, for their father, has likely led to their death. The final shot can be taken several ways, but that is what makes it so great.

Seen as the tree of life, the pair has been reborn in death. Or, if seen as the tree of knowledge, the pair has come upon a truth that yet eludes the viewer. Or, they have crossed Styx into an underworld every bit as brutal as the real world they left. Or, there are a handful of other explanations.

Yet, they all have some validity, and that Angelopouos trusts the audience to take what they need, rather than ram it down our throats Hollywood style, is why this is a masterpiece of a film, just as the DVD cover blurb insists. That it won the top prize, the Silver Lion, at the 1988 Venice Film Festival, and the Best Directing nod at the Chicago Film Festival is the least of its claims to greatness. It is lyrical, realistic, poetic, brutal, and delicately tender.

Just look at the scene where Alexandre, once found by Voula and Orestes, after working at the café to eat, hands his sister a sandwich, or the scene where Orestes says goodbye to them. Any Hollywood film would have had Orestes give up his dream of the Army and care for the children. But, in this world, the realistic one Angelopoulos limns, he acts in a real way, and lets them go.

The performance by Tzortzoglou is the film’s best. But the children are terrific, too. They both have a detached air that a lonely life would inflict. They are likely latchkey children, and despite their traumas, carry on as such weatherbeaten kids would. One can only guess at what sort of mother their mother is.

At one point, Voula, in an internal letter to her father, claims that Alexandre has chided her for betraying him – a claim that seems remarkable for a kindergartener – when she thinks they should turn back. Yet, this does not seem forced, as the boy seems, in some ways, even more mature and capable than his sister. And, after all, we see that neither their mother nor the authorities seem too intent on finding the duo, so the boy may sense something about their situation that Voula has missed.

The musical score by Eleni Karaindrou is perfectly balanced between the wistful and pathetic, while the cinematography of Giorgos Arvanitis is stunning, even if not in the claimed original widescreen, but a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that some critics have decried. Others have stated that the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is the original ratio for the film. The DVD by New Yorker Video has absolutely no extras, even though the film transfer is sterling. Some DVD critics have declaimed the colors as bleached or faded, but not in my copy of the film. Yes, there are few sunlit shots, but this is in keeping with the not too high nor low gauziness of this whole personal yet mythical children’s journey. The constant overcast skies remind me of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, and also many episodes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, while the long and penetrating takes are influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky.

This film has long been grouped with two other of Angelopoulos’s films (Voyage To Cythera and Ulysses’ Gaze) as a voyage trilogy, but it certainly stands alone, self-contained, as a great work of art. If the other two films are as powerful, Angelopoulos will have authored a trilogy that stands with the best that Bergman, Antonioni, Ozu, or Kieslowski have offered.

Of course, detractors have claimed what they usually do about great films that depend upon a penetrating beyond the ordinary — that this and other films by Angelopoulos are slow and boring. But, given the depth this film covers, it is a film that could have gone on another hour and remained fascinating. Also, the film is filled with movement — emotional, material, or narrative, even if the frame stands still. Then, there is the mixture of the personal, political, mythic, and sexual, so no critic worth their salt can claim the films are boring, unless they are simply wishing for Orestes to have crashed and burned on his motorcycle.

Landscape In The Mist is a truly great film and work of art, loaded with little moments (a cock that struts into a train station and is caught before the camera pans to the sleeping children) and those grand (as mentioned). It strives for a sort of an implicate order even as it specifies its claims to two individual children, and it is in the fluid melding of such high aims in such an easily achieved manner that Angelopoulos’s greatness in this film is achieved. It is one of those films where, even without thinking, the perfection of its image and message succeeds in moving the viewer. Sit still, be moved, and watch. Landscape In The Mist is that great.

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